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Interview: Rob Coppolillo on the Up and Downs of Being a Mountain Guide

Internationally-certified mountain guide Rob Coppolillo talks about the rewards, and the risks, of his job.

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Rob Coppolillo IFMGA Mountain Guide Firemans Belay Rappel
IFMGA guide Rob Coppolillo provides a fireman’s belay in Boulder Canyon. Ryan Dionne

Mountain guides get to share their skills in beautiful landscapes, but it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. IFMGA guide Rob Coppolillo, an instructor for Climbing’s Intro to Trad Climbing online course, talks about the highs and lows of the guiding life—and the wet rock.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about your background in guiding.

I started apprenticing with a guy here [in Boulder] when I was 32. In January 2007, I did my first [American Mountain Guide Association] course. I went through all the ski, alpine, and rock courses. It took me seven years. I did all my avalanche training, [Wilderness First Responder], and all that stuff. I finally passed my exams in 2014.

I was guiding throughout that period—more and more complex terrain and bigger routes. And then, finally, I could go over and work in Europe, so I’ve been over to the Dolomites and up on Mont Blanc. I started a business in 2014 with Mike Arnold, Vetta Mountain Guides. Right now, I guide a ton of rock climbing in the summer, and then avalanche courses and skiing in winter.

For the uninitiated, what’s the IFMGA?

International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations. It’s an international standard. It would be like passing your medical boards here in the United States. If you go see an MD in Seattle and an MD in Toledo, you’re reasonably sure both of these doctors have been trained to a similar level before they specialized. It’s a way to know you’re getting a baseline set of skills.

For all three disciplines—rock, alpine, and ski—there’s a final exam. The alpine exam is 10 days long, the ski exams 6 days long, the rock exam is 5 days long, if I remember correctly. They’re practical exams—you’re just in the field guiding with an examiner. Your examiner might tell you, “Hey, I want to do the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak,” and you do a little research and tell her, “Meet me at 8 a.m., bring this amount of water, and we’re going to do X, Y, and Z,” and then you just go guide. They have a scorecard and grade you on stuff, and you get a certain number of marginal marks—if you’re within that range then you pass, or you come back next year.

I did all three of my exams in 2014, in the same year.

What are some of the coolest places you’ve guided?

The Dolomites are fantastic—the place is full of refuges and chairlifts and trams and history. At the refuge up above Cortina—a place called the Squirrels Refuge—all the pasta is homemade [and there’s] homemade tiramisu. I love guiding in Las Vegas. The rock climbing there is wonderful—really dramatic environment. Joshua Tree is awesome. The access in Colorado is phenomenal, though: I can ride my bike to Eldo in about 12 minutes.

What are the best and worst parts about being a guide?

The best part is often—I work half-time as a mountain guide—that there are 50 to 75 days a year when you get to go out and do something that for a lot of people is their one or two weeks of vacation a year, and you get to do that frequently, which is great.

The flipside is it’s physical, manual labor. The hardest is when conditions aren’t right and you’re tired from being out for a few days already, having to go back into the field. Especially when clients are bummed—the skiing is bad or the route they want to do is wet. It’s a drag managing those expectations.

Tell me about a trip that didn’t go as planned.

I had a ski trip several years ago where one of our guests took a very, very long fall down a couloir, and luckily, he escaped with just a broken pinkie. We were steep skiing; [it’s] a bit like guiding free soloing. Luckily, he was able to ski out on his own with me. So, that’s what we call a near-miss.

Why do you like guiding?

I just love being outdoors. I’m a tree-hugger for sure. And I love being out with people who are psyched. Typically, the folks you’re out climbing and skiing with are as passionate as you are. It’s their vacation; they’ve saved up all year to go do something cool. Or it’s their first time in the Flatirons or up on Mont Blanc.

So, you end up sharing these awesome experiences with people, and hopefully you’re turning them into environmentally conscious people as well. They may not become total tree-huggers. But they may be more likely to think about water resources, climate change, habitat protection—things like that—when they go back to the voting booths or back home.

Want to learn trad from not one, but two internationally-certified guides: Rob Coppolillo and Marc Chauvin? Take AIM Adventure U’s Intro to Trad online course.